The Marvelous & Maddening World of Air Miles

Ciao Readers!

In my last post I promised you some tips on how to travel on air-miles. Before I do, some caveats – I am by no means an expert and I almost exclusively use American Airline miles, so your airline’s mileage program may differ (there are also “non-denominational” credit cards that give you miles good on several airlines); this is also not meant to be a comprehensive “how to.”  However, as we’ve been traveling mostly on miles since our trip to Japan in 2008 (business class, all on miles!) hopefully I have a useful idea or two.

First off, using miles requires advance planning – lots of advance planning.  Most airlines put their tickets on sale 331 days before the travel date.  If you are using miles and want to fly as directly as possible, using the least amount of miles possible, you should plan on booking your tickets as soon as the dates you want open up.  Depending on the airline, you may be able to book each leg of the trip separately – though if you book the “to” trip before the “back” trip becomes available you may find yourself with no return tickets options once the dates do open up.  The longer you wait to book, the more convoluted route you will have to choose (this is why we were routed through, and got stuck overnight in, North Carolina on a trip back from New York last year*) and the more miles you will have to use. For example, as I have already booked our France & Belgium trip for the winter, I was able to use only 20,000 miles per return ticket; if you try to book that same trip today you will have to use at least 40,000 or have 4 stops (like a trip overseas isn’t long enough!) (we actually had to use 50,000 to book business class tickets on the way there because that’s all that was available).  Also be aware that the time of year you travel makes a huge difference – tickets cost less miles and are more readily available at “off-peak” times (why you always see us in pictures bundled up – dead of winter is the easiest time to go anywhere non-tropical).  In addition to planning far in advance, be flexible.  For example, we are flying in to one Paris airport but flying out of a different one – for this trip it really doesn’t matter and opens up many more options (I tried flying us out of Belgium, but that was a no-go).  Another idea is just get on your airline’s booking page and play around – maybe you will discover there are no tickets to where you wanted to go, but lots of tickets to somewhere that piques your interest – a travel adventure awaits!  The moral of the story is to use miles when you know where you’re going way in advance…or when you have no idea of where you’re going and will take whatever you can get.  Miles are not the way to go for important and imminent travel.

Well, great advice you say, but what about first things first?  How do you get enough miles for all these trips? (If you did the math you see our upcoming Europe trip took a total of 140,000 miles).  That’s a good question.  There are several ways to collect miles and they take a little bit of work (though I think less work than actually using the miles once you get them).  All I can do is tell you how I’ve done it.  So here it is: when your preferred airline or other travel card is having a great promotion on a credit card (one that gives you at least 40,000 to 50,000 miles after you make a minimum purchase amount), go for it!  Be aware, though, these cards usually have a 85$ – 95$ yearly fee (waived the first year), so you have to really use the miles to make it worth it.  Once you have the card, use it – for everything that will not cost you a fee (and only if you are self-controlled enough to pay it off every month as if you were paying cash).  For me it’s pretty easy – I have a personal card and a business card (so I got tons of miles upfront, thus the trip to Japan) and I use both of them for everything. Luckily, almost all of my business overhead, including my rent, can be paid with a credit card without a fee; as I would have to write a check for these expenses every month anyway, I just pay the credit card in full.  Be careful, though, some things, like apartment rent and taxes, while they will accept credit cards, will charge you the 2.49% the credit card company charges them.  Look at how much it costs to “buy” miles straight out on your airline – the 2.49% is likely more and not worth it. In addition to using the credit card for straight dollars-to-miles purchases, some airlines (at least AA) offer you bonus miles for other purchases – using your credit card at certain restaurants, shopping online through their own shopping portal (I use www.aadvantageeshopping.com), and donating to certain charities or booking cars and hotels through their website.  (Sometimes there are “miles-for-weird-reasons” promotions – like Steve and I just got 1,000 miles each for watching little educational cartoons about AA’s Advantage program (a promotion due to their merger with U.S. Air)). All of these things can rack up the miles (during Mother’s day and V-Day there are often 30 miles/$ flower promotions, for example), but be careful not to overpay. If you can buy something cheaper from another retailer, don’t buy through your airline just for the miles (again, you can do the math by seeing how much it would cost to just buy the miles).  Some of these methods require signing up in advance, so read the fine-print.  (And speaking of “buying” miles, it’s not always a terrible option if you’re close to the miles you need for a ticket, especially a business or first class ticket; many airlines will let you hold miles tickets for up to a week while your purchase the miles you need to “pay” for the ticket.)

Finally, you can get miles by flying of course!  There are many trips where it just makes no sense to use miles (unless you have a bunch just lying around) – long haul trips in the U.S. that don’t cost too much but get you tons of miles (LA to NY for example), business trips, or trips to places next to impossible to book on miles.  In those cases, buy the ticket as you normally would – you will get miles for the flight, and depending on your credit card, you may get 2x extra miles for paying with the airline’s card (plus the basic dollar = miles).  If you’re going on vacation and book the entire vacation as a package through your airline you will often get a very large amount of bonus miles.  While I hate SPAM as much as the next person, I am signed up for AA emails as not only do I find out about specials, but I think I got 5K or 10K bonus miles for signing up.

If you’re interested in learning more from folks who really do have this down to a science, “flyertalk” is a great site devoted to frequent flyers.  Also, if you have some of your own tips, I (and others) would love to hear them – please post them in the comment section! Happy Travels!!!

*If you do get stuck somewhere, or sit on the tarmac for hours, or anything else unpleasant that is the airline’s fault, by all means ask customer service for compensation in the form of miles.

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2 Comments

  1. I need an airline miles coach… I hate this stuff – it’s just not how I enjoy spending free time. But I *should* do it, especially since Ken will now be spending more time abroad and I’ll want to go meet him. With 9-12 month assignments, it seems like I could be a good candidate for planning well in advance where to meet him somewhere at the end of his “tour of duty.”

    Reply
  2. Wow, those are long assignments, but yes, a great excuse to travel some more and a good reason to save and use those miles!!! (for those of you reading these comments, Ken, from goal42 got accepted to work with Doctors Without Borders – how cool is that?!?!)

    Reply

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